Understanding the psychology of everyday behaviour can help to bring about positive environmental change, according to the findings of the all-island Consensus project. The project (funded by the EPA) looked at sustainable consumption in Irish households and one of its staff, Ruth Doyle, outlined its work at the Environment Ireland conference.
Doyle is a posdoctoral researcher at Trinity College Dublin’s Department of Geography. She commented that small lifestyle changes are “clearly an important starting point” but people need to move beyond that and change their habits.
“If you behave virtuously in one area – so you might cycle to work or you might recycle your goods – that’s more likely to be followed directly by a more self-indulgent act,” she remarked i.e. a behavioural rebound effect.
These effects are an “intractable challenge” to sustainability. Sarah Darby of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute analysed two identical homes with the same heating systems and energy ratings – but the energy usage in one home was twice as high as the other.
“Behaviour can cancel out and undermine any technological advancements whilst they are important,” Doyle noted. Environmental communication tends to make rational pleas but this overlooks the “habitual nature” of consumption and also “contextual constraints”.
Rationalism assumes that people will change their attitudes and values – and therefore behaviour – if people are presented with the facts. However, Doyle added that attitudes and values are “weak predictors” for environmental action.
The Consensus project surveyed 1,500 people: 88 per cent said that they were concerned about environmental issues and 58 per cent said that they wanted to act in an environmentally friendly way but were struggling to translate their values into actual behavioural changes.
Tim Jackson, a professor of sustainable development at Surrey University, has written about an “iron cage of consumerism” as current political and economic systems perpetuate consumption-orientated growth.
Almost seventy-five per cent of the public’s direct resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions arise from three key areas:
• eating and drinking; and
• housing, water and energy use
Doyle’s research looked at household water and energy use and adopted a ‘social practice’ approach to behavioural change. This looks firstly at why a household uses water and energy i.e. to carry out “valued and routine practices” in the home such as washing and heating. A power shower allows a person to use excessive quantities of water if they are not being charged a value for the resource.
Doyle outlined the ‘collaborative backcasting’ technique which is used for problem-solving but is also a governance and ‘social learning’ technique.
Forecasting means starting from the present, extrapolating from current trends and asking: “What will the future be like?” Backcasting recognises that current consumer and environmental trends are part of the problem and Doyle says: “We need to break from them so you jump to the future and then you work back to the present.”
The process is increasingly being used in ‘transition management’ in the Netherlands and Scandinavia i.e. to bring together a range of stakeholders and develop long-term societal transition plans. The team applied this model for food, energy and water and involved over 80 stakeholders; these included businesspeople, civil servants, educationalists, architects and product designers.
Workshops looked at how stakeholders could deliver the results of daily practices – e.g. cleanliness, hygiene and refreshment – more sustainably in the year 2050. People want to be clean, well-fed and warm more than having water or fuel, which are instead a means to an end.
“This was liberating,” she said of the process, “and basically got people to think outside the box and think of new solutions and possibly even solutions for [the] green economy, new technology and innovations as well.”
For example, a person may be able to assess where and when they need to ‘splash wash’ rather than taking a full shower. Alternatives could involve low flow showers or gel cleaners. With heating, advanced material appliances could heat the parts of the home where the person is present.
In-home monitoring systems could show a person how much water resources they have alongside forecasts for weather and aquifers. “And then you adapt your behaviour according to that,” Doyle explains. “You’re not constantly expecting to have water on tap for the same quantities so you change your behaviour then to reflect the ecological conditions.”
Efficiency can be promoted through technology and product design and reinforced through regulations that “stimulate” householders to use their resources more wisely. Direct feedback at the point of use (e.g. the tap) is a “really strong way of changing behaviour” rather than feedback afterwards. This could indicate how much water a person is using, how much is still available, and also how a person might reduce their water use.
Researchers saw a greater role for targets. The average Irish person uses 150 litres of water per day, 38 per cent of which is used in personal washing.
In the future, this could be brought down to 70-80 litres per day with benchmarking against neighbouring households – another lever for promoting individual change through efficient technologies.
The pro-social aspect emphasises the need to promote responsible citizenship rather than focusing on the individual consumer. “Linking social status to responsible consumption” is a key way of doing this.
Homes could be mapped and colour-coded according to the amount of energy they use or plaques/stars could be assigned to homes that are composting their waste (to serve as social motivators).
Community farms, energy projects and rainwater harvesting were all pro-social practices. Sharing, lending and bartering resources – e.g. through www.freetrade.ie – releases resources for the community rather than just the individual.
The Consensus researchers are now seeking to test their approaches in a number of households (Home Labs) and will then make recommendations for each sector.